Hollywood May Say It’s All For Diversity, But TV Writers Tell A Different Story

By Nina Metz Chicago Tribune

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) As Nina Metz reports, "A majority of writers hired at all levels have been, and continue to be, abled, straight, cisgender, white and male. Which is why, last fall, Amanda Idoko launched the #ShowUsYourRoomChallenge hashtag, encouraging showrunners to post group photos of their writing staff on social media."

Chicago Tribune

In film, the director holds the creative top spot.

But in television, that position is almost always held by a writer, aka the showrunner.

A quick primer on how it works: Showrunners are the key decision-makers on a series, from casting to determining a season's narrative arc to hiring a writers room to help build out and script each episode.

When it comes to TV writing, there are various job titles, "staff writer" being the entry-level designation and even that doesn't guarantee the opportunity to actually write an episode or have your name listed in the show's end credits.

Writers who advance get better titles (executive story editor, producer, etc.) and also better wages. At the executive producer/showrunner level, compensation might also include "points," meaning: A certain percentage of the show's profits.

If a show runs for several years, that can translate into millions.

Only a small number of Hollywood writers get their shot at creating their own series for a network or streaming service, and you can see how simply getting your foot in the door is an essential first step.

That's one very good reason why it matters that the majority of writers hired at all levels have been, and continue to be, abled, straight, cisgender, white and male.

Right now we're in the midst of staffing season, which is when network TV pilots assemble their writers rooms.

Describing this yearly hiring frenzy for the trade publication Script Magazine, Eric Haywood (whose credits include "Soul Food" and "Empire") called it a "mad dash of agents and managers trying to book meetings for their clients, and the writers themselves doing their level best to make a good impression on everyone they meet, in the hopes of securing one of those coveted positions."

The competition for jobs is fierce, even as the number of scripted series has grown to 500. And disparities still exist.

Which is why, last fall, Amanda Idoko launched the #ShowUsYourRoomChallenge hashtag, encouraging showrunners to post group photos of their writing staff on social media.

At the time, she was writing for the forthcoming animated Apple series "Central Park."

Her film script for "Breaking News in Yuba County," starring Allison Janney and Laura Dern, starts shooting this year.

I was curious what results the hashtag had generated over the last six months. Here's what she told me. "Only 52 rooms participated in the Show Us Your Room Challenge. There are over 500 scripted shows on TV, so only one-tenth of TV writers rooms were proud to share a photo of their staff in support of diversity and inclusion. That's shameful. I also want to point out that 75 percent of the rooms that participated in the challenge are run or co-run by women or people of color. If this industry actually wants to improve its terrible diversity numbers, studios should hire more women and POC showrunners, because women and POC are clearly the ones hiring diverse staffs."

Even once diverse writers do get hired, all kinds of obstacles remain. Earlier this week a study from the Think Tank for Inclusion and Equity found that some biases are still firmly entrenched.

According to the report, titled "Behind the Scenes: The State of Inclusion and Equity in TV Writing," diverse writers, defined here as working Hollywood writers who identify as women or non-binary, LGBTQ, people of color and people with disabilities, are "routinely isolated within writers rooms, often relegated to lower levels where writers possess little agency or power to contribute."

We saw concerns raised about just this issue when allegations recently surfaced about the Showtime series "SMILF," created by and starring Frankie Shaw, who is also the showrunner. According to The Hollywood Reporter: "Several sources say writers of color were put in different rooms from Caucasian writers and felt that their ideas were exploited without pay or credit."

ABC Studios, which makes the show, launched an investigation amid additional concerns (including the mishandling of sex scenes) and the show, which is finishing out its second season, was canceled by Showtime earlier this month.

Back to the report. Another finding concerns the so-called "diversity hire," which is a staff writing position specifically ear-marked for a non-white writer and it doesn't come out of the showrunner's budget, because the studio or TV network pays for that person's salary.

It's always an entry-level position (staff writer) and it's always at the lowest pay grade.

Here's what the report found: "While the studio and network practice of financially incentivizing diverse writer hires does help diverse writers get their foot in the door, it typically does not result in writers advancing. Once diverse writers are in the pipeline, a vast majority find their path to advancement blocked."

Beejoli Shah wrote a column for Defamer a few years back about diversity hires and she lays out why this happens:

"If a showrunner wants to promote a writer out of the diversity hire slot, that writer's salary will be now be coming out of the show's budget, rather than a separate network stipend, and pulling funds away from other aspects of production."

The "Behind the Scenes" report determined that "unless diverse writers come at a discount, they're not given the chance."

That's chilling.

And it inevitably "creates the perception that diverse candidates are somehow lesser/would not be employable in a 'free market.'"

There's also a weird stigma that comes with the diversity hire position, that writers in those jobs are less worthy or talented.

Tanya Saracho, the one-time Chicago playwright who is the creator and showrunner of the Starz series "Vida," returning for a second season later this year, explored this tension in her 2017 play "Fade."

She based it on her own experiences starting out in Hollywood. Her main character, a newbie Mexican-American TV writer, describes an interaction with a colleague who "corrals me in the kitchen, puts his face real close to mine and whispers all gross, 'You do know you're the diversity hire, right?'

"And I'm like, 'What's that?'

"He says, 'You're only here because you're a Hispanic. It's great, you don't have to try too hard, you're only here to meet the quota.'"

(With the recent cancellation of Netflix's "One Day at a Time," Saracho is one the few if not the only Latina executive producers to be running her own show at the moment.)

Similar stories show up in the "Behind the Scenes" report, which is a fascinating read particularly for its anonymous anecdotes, which are blunt and to the point.

As a diversity hire, one person noted, "You become part of the writing staff but you're not included. They leave you out, they have no incentive. You're not given a voice. So, when it's time to re-up, they're not going to bring you back on as someone that they pay. They don't know who you are. You haven't been allowed to speak."

ShowUsYourRoom's Idoko echoed these sentiments.

"There's definitely an implicit bias in the system," she told me. "There are shows that have a revolving door diversity slot, they hire a new diverse writer from one of the diversity programs every year, immediately let them go as soon as they are no longer free, and repeat.

Instead of actually investing in the diverse writers they hire, these shows cycle diverse writers, usually POC, in and out, with no intention of actually promoting them, slowing down the advancement of their careers. It's a disgusting abuse of a system that was put in place to promote diversity, and it needs to stop."

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